Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

The Duke of Alva

A.D. 1559-1570

Graver matters even than the death of wife and son were making the gloomy soul of Philip gloomier than ever. Rebellion against Spain had broken out in the Low Countries—by which name, in consequence of their lying on a level with the sea, Holland, Belgium, and Flanders are known.

Under the Emperor Charles these countries, which had for some time been provinces of Spain, had grown prosperous and rich. Antwerp was the greatest place of trade in the world, full of busy factories, great warehouses, and wealthy banks. Traders and manufacturers from every country in Europe went there to start in business. Big-pooped vessels were seen loading and unloading at its wharves, and long strings of loaded wagons—taking the place which railroads do now—rolled along its streets. All classes of people were well-to-do.

The merchants lived like princes; mechanics had neat dwellings, which were kept spotlessly clean, and were handsomely furnished; the working-class was well clothed and well fed; it was hard to find a peasant who could not read and write. Now these people, being readers and thinkers, and listeners to those who had travelled, were disposed to become Protestants. Charles had tried to stop the heresy, as he called it, by burning and beheading those who left the old church; but though he put many thousands to death, he said on his death-bed that his effort to destroy Protestantism had been a failure.

Philip, frowning in his dark chamber, now resolved to accomplish that which his father had been unable to do—to root out heresy. And as it was absolutely necessary for him to remain in Spain, he appointed to carry out his purposes, and to be regent in the Low Countries in his stead, his half-sister, Margaret of Parma. This was a remarkable woman; the courtiers called her a man in petticoats. She had the will, and the hard, cold temper of a man. Her only pleasure was hunting; on her upper lip and chin there grew a down like a beard. She was devout; in Holy Week she always washed the feet of twelve poor girls.

To advise this man-woman Philip chose as her chief counsellor Cardinal Granvelle, who was as fond of persecution as he was himself. The great nobles of Flanders and the Low Countries generally hated Granvelle, whose mean, narrow soul they had long ago measured. Egmont and the Prince of Orange could not bear him, nor could the people. But they submitted. Not always, however.

At Valenciennes two Calvinist preachers were arrested for heresy, tried, and chained to the stake to be burned. But the people rushed to the place of execution, scattered the fagots, loosed the chains, and carried off the preachers in triumph. Margaret was equal to the occasion. Her brother had taught her that "rigorous and severe measures are the only ones to be employed in matters of religion." Granvelle advised her how to act; she sent an army to Valenciennes, caught the leaders of the mob and hanged them. Granvelle exulted.

Then the nobles, the Prince of Orange, Egmont, and the citizens generally, demanded that Granvelle should be dismissed. Margaret refused. Egmont wrote to the king to demand the recall of the hated cardinal. Philip, smiling a bitter, cruel smile, refused. But the cardinal, who had read that unpopular ministers sometimes lost their heads, remembered that he had not seen his old mother for fourteen years, and that he must, as a good son, pay her a visit. So he disappeared for a time. I don't think Philip and his sister won the first game in the match with the Low Countries.

You must understand that it was not the Protestants alone who were opposed to religious persecution in the Low Countries. Most of the nobles were Catholics; Egmont, who was one of the fiercest opponents of the Inquisition and Philip's cruelties, was a stanch Catholic. He went to Spain on behalf of his country to say that people of all faiths, including most of the Catholic priests, believed that nothing would satisfy the people of the Low Countries but freedom of conscience and freedom of worship.

Philip replied, grimly stroking his thin beard, that if that was the case they should have both. But Egmont had no sooner turned his back than the treacherous king broke his promises, and wrote to Margaret that the laws against the Protestants must be enforced with the utmost rigor; that no heretic must be allowed to live, that the Inquisition must be restored with full power, and that the whole force of the government must be employed to sustain it.

The letter in which he wrote these things fell like a thunder-clap on the Low Countries. Margaret declared she would resign her regency. Philip would not accept her resignation. She begged him to come to Brussels himself. He promised he would, and of course did not. Egmont ground his teeth with rage at having been hood-winked. The Prince of Orange, more self-contained, said: "I fear me we shall see the beginning of a fine tragedy. These despatches will drive men into rebellion, and I do not see myself how I can endure them."

Thousands of industrious Flemings, foreseeing the future, crossed the water to England, carrying their trades with them. Others sharpened their knives and their axes, resolved that if the Inquisitors came near their houses there would be two sides to the argument.

At length the pent-up fury of the Protestants burst out. They sacked convents, monasteries, and churches; breaking the statues, cutting the pictures to pieces, smashing the altars with their furniture, and tearing down pulpits and chapels. This went on until Margaret promised she would not obey her brother's orders, and would not interfere with the meeting-houses of the Protestants; then peace was restored. She wrote to Philip that he need not be bound by her bargain unless he chose to. She was a worthy sister of such a brother. As for him, when he got the news he set his bloodless lips firmly, plucked his beard till some hairs were torn out, and muttered:

"It shall cost them dear. By the soul of my father, it shall cost them dear."

And he ordered the Duke of Alva to take command in the Low Countries.

The Duke of Alva was a soldier of repute, and a high grandee of Castile. He looked upon the world as a camp in which it was mutiny, punishable with death, to dispute the orders of the general commanding He was sixty years of age, and as hard as a flint His first act was to entrap Egmont and Hoorne, who were the best-loved leaders of the people, and to send them prisoners to Ghent. Then he organized a court to try such prisoners as might be brought before it. You can fancy what the judges were from the name the people gave to the court—the Council of Blood.

Before the Council of Blood in the first months of 1568 several hundred of the best people of the Low Countries were brought and sentenced to death. They were executed day after day, some by hanging, some by beheading, some by burning. Most of them were Protestants, but some were Catholics who w ere in favor of religious freedom. On Ash-Wednesday five hundred burghers were torn out of their beds and carried before the Bloody Council. One of the members of the council was so worn out by signing death-warrants that he fell asleep, and had to be awakened to vote on the guilt or innocence of the prisoner on trial. lie would rub his eyes and croak, "To the gallows! To the gallows!"

But iron-hearted Alva was not satisfied with the execution of common people. He hauled Egmont and Hoorne out of their prison at Ghent to be tried before the Council of Blood.

Egmont was honored and loved by every one in the country. He had won for Spain the battles of St. Quentin and Gravelines. He was a firm Catholic, and had never wavered in his faith. He had always been loyal to his king. But Philip was so suspicious that he was afraid of what he might do, and there is no doubt but that Alva acted by his orders. Egmont had a wife and eleven small children. The former had begged on her knees to be allowed to see her husband during the nine months he had been in prison: Alva had sternly refused. All Egmont's property had been seized, and his children would have starved but for a small sum of money which, out of the proceeds, Alva allowed to be sent to their mother.

On the morning of June 5th, 1568, the prisoner heard mass, and made his confession. He wrote a letter to Philip, which he dated "On the point of death," saying:

"Whatever I hate done, I have done from a sincere regard for the service of God and your majesty. Wherefore I pray your majesty, for the sake of my past services, to take pity on my poor wife, my children, and my servants."

At ten o'clock he dressed in a crimson damask robe, over which was a Spanish mantle figured with gold. He wore black silk breeches, and a black silk hat. As he was led by soldiers through the streets the shops closed, business ceased, and the church-bells tolled. Grief was on every face. He walked firmly up the scaffold steps, and after a brief prayer turned to the executioner, who, with a single blow of his sword, struck off his head.

This shocking murder of one of the purest men the Low Countries ever produced roused the people to fury, and rebellion broke out in every direction. The rebels chose William of Orange to be their leader; he carried on a fitful warfare against the Duke of Alva for five years. There were no striking successes on either side. But though, on the whole, Alva won more advantages in the field than William, being an abler soldier, yet he could not help seeing that mainly through his cruelties and his arrogant disposition, the Low Countries were forever lost to Spain. He said to himself when he left the country in 1573 that he had caused eighteen thousand Netherlanders to be exe¬cuted in six years; he might have added that he had cost Spain every friend she had in that part of the world, and every foot of land she had ever owned.

To him and Pizarro, and men of their stamp, the horrible reputation which the Spaniards bore in the sixteenth century was due. Your ancestors, who lived in those days, believed that every Spaniard was a monster of cruelty and wickedness—a devil in human form. Vessels which were fitted out to roam the seas from England, France, Holland, Italy, and Portugal, attacked Spanish ships wherever they found them, and gave the crews no quarter, whether war was raging or not. Spaniards were counted a race apart from the rest of mankind; not really human, but diabolical, to be hunted down and exterminated like vicious wild beasts. If you read the books which were written at that period you will be astonished at the pitiless hate which the very name of a Spaniard aroused all over the world.

If you travel in Spain to-day you will find a courteous, humane, kindly, generous, hospitable people, whom it is delightful to know. But men like Philip the Second and Pizarro and Alva stamped their imprint on the race to which they belonged, and for a time it suffered for their crimes.